History of Asbestos Bans in the US

Do you, like many others, think that the United States has an asbestos ban in place? In the United States, asbestos is regulated. That, though, is not the same thing as a ban. While asbestos may be banned in the making of some products, it, as a mineral, has not been banned. The United States continues to import massive amounts of asbestos every year, and has no plans to stop. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, 750 metric tons of the deadly mineral were imported in 2018.

While asbestos in the United States is somewhat regulated, it is allowed to be used in hundreds of consumer products, provided it accounts for less than one percent of the product.

In the 1970s, warnings about the dangers of asbestos were issued. Now, we know that every type of asbestos causes mesothelioma, lung cancer, and other deadly diseases. Many people think that, as the natural next step, the United States banned asbestos after issuing warnings. That is not the case.

It took until the early 1970s for the United States to create the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), to limit exposures to many toxic pollutants, including asbestos. Perhaps, because the warnings about asbestos came out first in the 1970s, it comes as no surprise that the EPA and OSHA were created in the 1970s. But it was in the 1960s, years before those warnings were issued, that Dr. Irving J. Selikoff conclusively linked asbestos to mesothelioma and other lung cancers. Dr. Selikoff’s discoveries provided the evidence necessary to counteract the huge role the asbestos industry held in United States’ construction and politics.

It was in 1980 that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) announced that no amount of asbestos exposure is safe, and that there is no level of exposure that, below which, no clinical effects occur.

During the 1970s and 80s, multiple acts and legislations were made, restricting and regulating the use of asbestos.

The Clean Air Act of 1970 classified asbestos as an air pollutant. In doing so, the act gave the EPA power to regulate both the use and the disposal of the mineral. With the act, spray based asbestos products were banned.

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), passed in 1976, gave the EPA authority to restrict chemicals such as asbestos, radon, and lead-based paint.

The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act of 1986 (AHERA) made the EPA establish standards for dealing with asbestos in schools.

In 1989, the EPA issued the Asbestos Ban and Phase-Out Rule (ABPR). The legislation planned to impose a full asbestos ban. This would stop all manufacturing, importing, processing, and sale of any products containing asbestos. To date, this is the best attempt at a federal asbestos ban. Sadly, the legislation was short lived. The asbestos industry backfired strongly. Critics said the ruling would cause “death by regulation,” citing job loss and economic consequences. After a suit, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ban on October 18, 1991, saying the EPA failed to prove the ruling as being the least burdensome alternative to regulating asbestos.

The EPA didn’t repeal the ruling, though. The court clarified that the EPA was allowed to apply the ban to asbestos products that were not being imported, processed, or manufactured on the day the EPA announced ABPR: July 12, 1989.

Under the clarification, the EPA decided that six categories fit in the court’s classification. These categories were flooring felt, roll board, commercial paper, corrugated paper, specialty paper, and new uses of asbestos. These, along with spray-applied asbestos, are the only types of asbestos currently banned in the United States.

The Ban Asbestos in America Act was first introduced by State Senator Patty Murray, D-Wash in 2002. The act originally aimed to totally ban asbestos in the United States. In 2007, while the bill passed in the Senate, it died in the U.S. House of Representatives. It would have prohibited importation, processing, manufacture, and distribution of asbestos-containing products in the United States. It covered not only all types of asbestos, but also three other durable fibers with structures similar to asbestos. It also included the establishment of a network of research and treatment centers, and better record keeping of asbestos caused diseases. The act would have directed NIOSH to review what was missing in asbestos knowledge, and recommended areas where more research was necessary. On top of that, it would have funded public awareness programs to raise awareness of asbestos and it’s dangers. Despite all the great things the act would have done, if it had been passed, it would not have banned all asbestos-containing products, even though that was what it had set out to do. This was because a sentence from the original act had had to be removed. The removal made it so, if the asbestos in the product had not been purposefully added, the product was allowed.

The Bruce Vento Ban Asbestos and Prevent Mesothelioma Act was introduced to Congress on September 15th, 2008. Its goal was to amend the TSCA to ban more asbestos-containing products. The bill would have still allowed some asbestos uses, such as in the production of chlorine and lye. It would also have increased awareness measures, and, interestingly, revised the definition of “asbestos” such that it included more asbestiform amphibole minerals, such as winchite and richterite. The bill didn’t get very far, and died in Congress.

Many countries have completely banned asbestos. In 1999, the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS) was founded, and it is a leading voice in the fight to ban asbestos worldwide. Other organizations, such as WHO (to combat the growing number of mesothelioma cases), continue to fight for a worldwide ban. The United States is one of the only world powers to not have a ban in place.

What is stopping the U.S. from banning asbestos? The asbestos industry and politicians, motivated by their own self-interests, have given major push back to all moves for a ban. The EPA took a step in the right direction when it added asbestos to the list of the top ten chemicals for priority action. This was done under the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, which grants the EPA more leverage against dangerous chemicals. Adding asbestos to the list puts it up to review by the agency.

For more information visit asbestos.com

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